- Drame en 3 actes en prose, mêlé de musique
- Composer: Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny
- Libretto: Michel-Jean Sedaine
- First performed: Opéra-Comique (Hôtel de Bourgogne), 6 March 1769
Monsigny is one of opera’s great “unsung” heroes. Le Roi et le fermier (1762), in its directness and tunefulness, has as much claim to be the first “modern” opera as Gluck’s Orfeo (also 1762). In Le Déserteur, generally considered his masterpiece, he and librettist Sedaine quietly invent Romantic rescue opera, with its prison scenes, sentences of death, firing squads, and last-minute reprieves.
“There is not a weak piece,” Berlioz wrote, “in this score of an old French master who had almost nothing of what is called musical science, who wrote before Grétry, whom they do not even deign to count among the illustrations of our art, and whose name most of the young musicians, composers, singers, or virtuosi currently living in Europe perhaps do not know. O vicissitudes of glory!”
The deserter is Alexandre Spinaski (Alexis for short), a young soldier. His superior officers believe he has all the qualities of a good soldier: he is wise, obedient, and brave. Wise? On leave from his regiment to marry his sweetheart Louise, he is told that she has already married her simple-minded cousin Bertrand. The heartbroken Alexis longs to die – and chooses to effectively commit suicide at another’s hand. In a lively ensemble, he deserts his regiment, knowing he will be shot.
Alexis is, in fact, the victim of a nasty practical joke; the duchess, Louise’s father’s employer, ordered the mock wedding. (This premise is, as all commentators have agreed since 1769, absurd.)
The second and most of the third acts are set in a prison cell, as Alexis awaits execution. In a dark-hued, urgent aria, “Mourir n’est rien”, Alexis reads his last letter from Louise, in which she looks forward to their marriage (“Traitress!”); he, in his turn, looks forward to death, which will end his suffering. Suddenly, from 18th-century pastorale, with its spinning songs and cornemuses, Monsigny leaps into the intensity of the 19th century. It is more immediate than almost anything composed so far.
Louise reveals the deceit in an exquisite romance, “Dans quel trouble te plonge”; unaware that Alexis has been condemned, she is confused that such seemingly good news would devastate him.
The fugue trio “Ô ciel! Quoi? Tu vas mourir” is masterly; daughter and father express their grief, while Alexis consoles himself with the knowledge that Louise loves him. “It ravages the soul and the senses,” Berlioz exclaimed. “The listener really feels what the characters must feel, and he seems to feel his heart tearing like theirs. This is immensely beautiful under the double aspect of dramatic truth and musical invention; I do not know any counterpart to this trio.”
The drunken soldier Montauciel provides light relief; his aria “Je ne déserterai jamais” was famous in its day. The act ends with a comic scene for Montauciel and Bertrand which Berlioz called a stroke of genius. “The idea of making the simpleton sing a ridiculous song, then the drunkard Montauciel sing a frank and jovial one, then bringing them together, the two characters singing two different songs at the same time, is one of the most pleasing inventions of counterpoint applied to dramatic effect.” (Clément thought it inspired “Villes entourées”, Berlioz’s great double chorus of soldiers and students, in La damnation de Faust.)
The heart of the third act is Alexis’s aria “Il m’eut été si doux”, longing to see Louise before he dies. The solemn, nine-minute aria anticipates Florestan’s “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier” in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Here, too, we find Montauciel’s bravura letter aria, another favourite in its age. Unable to read, he can’t decipher the message that he’s a greenhorn.
Louise, shoes in hand, jumps over ditches, and cuts through vineyards, hedges, and paths, to beg the king for his pardon. He grants it; she dashes back to the prison – but collapses before she can deliver it. Alexis bids her a tender farewell (“Adieu, chère Louise, adieu…”), and the soldiers lead him off to face the firing squad.
The scene changes; we are outside the prison. The distraught villagers assemble. Gendarmes stand Alexis against a wall. They offer him a black cloth to cover his eyes; he refuses. Alexis kneels. A drum beats. The soldiers present arms; they aim… Alexis steels himself…
At that moment, Louise rushes on, shouting: “Stop!” She presents the king’s pardon to the officer, and falls almost fainting in Alexis’s arms. Alexis is saved.
“People can complain about the unlikelihood, and they would be right,” Pougin thought. “It is no less true that, as a coup de théâtre, this dénouement is simply admirable, and its effect is grandiose. We are, 60 years before its noisy advent, in full Romanticism, and Sedaine has made a place for himself in the history of our theatre.”
No less a judge than Voltaire was impressed. “I do not know anyone who understands theatre better than you,” he wrote to Sedaine, “and who makes his actors speak more naturally.”
The opera’s success was at first doubtful. The Mémoires secrets (an anonymous chronicle) found the piece pretentious and nonsensical, particularly the character of Montauciel. The music was better, often applauded; Monsigny tried to pull himself out of sorrow and melancholy, but the text often dragged him back.
On the other hand, Madame de Genlis, writer and Governess of the Children of France, thought the drama unlikely in the extreme, but it offered touching details and highly effective scenes. “I went to the first performance, and I swear I wept torrents of tears.”
The mixture of sentiment, drama, and comedy made it one of the most popular operas of the day. It was performed 180 times at the Opéra between 16 January 1788 and 17 January 1808. It was often chosen for the free spectacle presented to the public under the First Empire, including to celebrate the victory at Austerlitz (21 December 1805), Napoleon’s birthday (14 August 1808, 1809, and 1812), victories in Germany (6 May 1809), the imperial wedding (1 April 1810), and an anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation (5 December 1812).
Adolphe Adam reorchestrated the work in 1843 for an audience used to the richer sound of Rossini and Meyerbeer. He was criticised for some of his changes, including turning Alexis into a tenor; rewriting some of the numbers; and cutting several arias. But it was a triumph, achieving a run of 190 performances.
“I believe that in no musical composition intended for the theatre,” Berlioz wrote, “have the feeling for dramatic propriety, the expression of passions and characters been carried further. Monsigny is as true in his genre as Gluck is in his. He is as naïve as Grétry, with more developed, ampler musical forms.”
Berlioz was astonished to see an Italian singing-master, sworn enemy of French opéra comique, moved and delighted by this old music of which he had never heard. The Italian declared that all these charming melodies could not be applied to other words without barbarism, that they were the ideal of truth and expression.
The poet Heinrich Heine was one of those who saw the 1843 performance. “Here is true French music!” he raved in Lutèce (1844). “The most serene grace, an ingenuous gentleness, a freshness similar to the perfume of woodland flowers, a true naturalness, truth and nature, and even poetry. Yes, the latter is not absent; but it is a poetry without the frisson of the infinite, without mysterious charm, without bitterness, without irony, without morbidezza. I would almost say a poetry enjoying good health.”
The opera was performed 339 times at the Opéra-Comique between 1843 and 1911, with major reprises in 1853 (79 performances), 1877 (67 performances), and 1893.
William Sharp (Alexis), Dominique Labelle (Louise), Ann Monoyios (Jeannette), David Newman (Montauciel), Eugene Galvin (Jean-Louis), Tony Boutté (Bertrand), and Darren Perry (Courchemin), with Ryan Brown conducting the Opera Lafayette Orchestra, University of Maryland, USA, 2009. Naxos.
- Thomas Bauman, “The eighteenth century: Comic opera”, in The Oxford History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker, Oxford University Press, 1996
- Camille Bellaigue, “Un Siècle de musique français – l’Opéra-comique”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1886
- Hector Berlioz, feuilleton du Journal des débats, 12 November 1843, http://www.hberlioz.com/feuilletons/debats431112.htm
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Arthur Pougin, Monsigny et son temps: L’opéra-comique et l’opéra italienne: Les auteurs, les compositeurs, les chanteurs, Paris: Librairie Fischbacher, 1908
- Pierre Scudo, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Revue_musicale,_1862/03 – Pierre Scudo